Taking a transdiciplinary approach to teaching ethics

In their research paper, “Ignorance was bliss, now I’m not ignorant and that is far more difficult: Transdiciplinary learning and reflexivity in responsible management education,” coauthors Carole Parkes and John Blewitt from Aston University in the UK write, “If we are to enable students as future business leaders and managers we need to prepare them for complex ethical dilemmas and difficult choices they will encounter.” Doing this, they continue, involves not just reviewing the content of such programmes, but the approach and philosophies that drive them.

I recently had the chance to speak with Carole Parkes about this cross-cutting approach to teaching ethics and their new MSc in Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

1. Could you briefly describe how you approach this unqiue type of ethics module?

We cover a range of issues from ethics and values to CSR and governance, social accountability and ecological sustainability. Students are supported in developing skills related to critical thinking, analysis, and reflection. Teaching methods are highly interactive, enabling them to apply knowledge of theories, models, ethical frameworks, and concepts to local and global issues. We encourage reflection and connection with personal, family, and cultural values from the outset. We have students from around 30 different countries and many different business and professional backgrounds.

They also discuss live case studies with practitioners when we invite local business professionals to facilitate workshops on ethical dilemmas that they have encountered first-hand. This brings the reality of ethics to students’ own situations, rather than using case studies they do not always connect with.

2. This approach is transdiciplinary. How have you reached out to faculty from a range of departments?

When studying, discussing or practicing business ethics, social responsibility and sustainability, whether in the workplace or the university, what is clearly and immediately evident is that the concepts, perspectives and actions involved transgress disciplinary and professional boundaries. The Aston programme is taught by staff of different disciplines drawn from within and outside the business school. We also managed to persuade the school to enable us to recruit for expertise that complimented our programme, rather than making subject-based appointments.

3. How has the module been received? 

Student feedback has been fantastic. Some said “this is the best module in the MBA.” Others reported that the module provided them with the “vocabulary” or the “confidence” to raise issues and concerns that they had previously thought about, but did not know how to construct into an argument.

This issue of “voice” is an important theme. Students also mentioned “realising that others have similar thoughts” or that their studies provided “legitimacy” for their own views. Many students discussed having a “heightened sense of awareness about issues in the media and thinking about matters at a much deeper level,” or “thinking about everyday activities such as shopping and travelling in a way they had not done so before.” Experiencing “self-enlightenment” empowered them to act as agents of change in their place of work; to make their workplaces more ethical, responsible or sustainable. A number of these responses are included in the paper referred to below.

4. What would you recommend for other schools looking at transdisciplinary/reflective learning in particular in an ethics class?

The key is enabling students to have exposure to different issues from different but connected disciplines and to use practical, work-based learning. The students have been encouraged to develop awareness through examination of their own personal values and to use this to critically analyse their previous experiences and current challenges.

These are important stages in reflection and are crucial to the final stage of application. Awareness and analysis provide insights, but if students are to move beyond this, they need to use knowledge to initiate changes. The reflective piece started off as optional but soon became (a small but important) part of the assessment. Marking is anonymous and assessment criteria are based on student’s skills of reflection and ability to relate this to future actions. It is important to emphasize that assessment must be non-judgmental of student’s values and views.

5. What are your plans for the programme moving forward?

From next year, all modules leaders for all MSc programmes have to state how they address issues of ethics, responsibility and sustainability in the context of their subject/module. We will also be launching our MSc Social Responsibility & Sustainability in Distance Learning format. The MSc aims to combine both academic and practical perspectives in a programme suitable for those people interested in working in roles related to CSR and Sustainability in commercial business, the public sector, social enterprises, not-for-profits, and charities. The programme, which is already offered in full-time and part-time options, adopts a transdisciplinary approach, enabling students to explore social responsibility and sustainability from multiple perspectives in the context of a world-class business school.

  • To learn more about Aston’s approach read: Carol Parkes and John Blewitt. “Ignorance was bliss, now I’m not ignorant and that is far more difficult” Trans-disciplinary learning and reflexivity in responsible management education.” Journal of Global Responsibility 2.2 (2011): 206-21.

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